You may be familiar with the concept of a “self-fulfilling prophesy.” They occur when a person makes a prediction and then that prediction makes the person act in a certain way. For example, a student says “I’m going to fail my math test.” Since the student is already expecting failure, there’s a lack of motivation to study for the test. The end result is that the student fails the test and says “See, I knew I would fail.”
I think there is also “self-fulfilling popularity.” If a system is innovative and revolutionary, it becomes the new gold-standard to which all competitors are compared. Buyers adopt the new system while competitors race to catch up, and the new system becomes entrenched. Third party companies begin offering ad-ons for the system whether they’re apps for a device, speakers for an iPod, or grips for a rifle. These aftermarket accessories and third-pary support offer additional incentives to buy the original system, which further helps the system endure competition. The system’s early popularity guarantees it’s ongoing success. People continue buying them just because they’re popular.
As you may have guessed, I first noticed this trend a decade ago with the iPod. It was revolutionary in it’s time, and it survived even after numerous “iPod Killer” media players were designed. I personally had a Creative Labs Vision:M which was far superior to an iPod of the time, especially the video resolution and the addition of extra features like hidden files and an FM radio. However, the iPod still far outsold the Vision:M and other competitors. I believe that part of the reason people bought iPods was the easy availability of accessories. For example, one company made a stereo alarm clock that cradled the iPod and synced with it automatically, allowing you to set your preferred wake-up music. No one made anything like that for the Vision:M, and that’s only one example. I could find dozens of others.
In some ways, this can be a good thing because it can lead to the adoption of standard products. Look at the Betamax/VHS competition or the more recent HD-DVD/Blueray competition. In both cases, a single format survived the competition and companies compete to build the best or cheapest Blueray players. Can you imagine a world where the market was still divided? If instead of a single system or two, can you imagine if every friend you knew used a different brand and format of video player?
Stangely, that seems to be the situation in most of the firearm world. Very few firearm designs share parts in common with each other except ammunition and occasionally magazines. Even sights and magazines usually fit a specific firearm or family of firearms. For example, all Glock pistols use the same sights and most of the same internal parts like triggers. However, no other fiream company uses sights, triggers, or any other parts that are cross-compatible with Glock parts (except magazines, again).
There are a few exceptions, however. Uzi magazines are also used in the Colt-style 9mm AR-15 versions. Sten magazines are also used in the 9mm M-11/9 guns while the M-10 guns use the same magazines as the M3 “greasegun”. Numberous companies produce accessories for Glock pistols (including magazines). There are several 9mm rifles that use Glock magazines, but I don’t think there are any other pistols that use Glock mags ecxept for the Glock-clone from Lone Wolf Distributors.
The single closest thing to “universal” firearm standards in the US are probably the AR-15 and the M1911. There are literally dozens of companies that produce AR-15 pattern firearms and I can name at least one dozen companies off the top of my head that build M1911 pattern pistols. However, you can’t just drop parts together to build a 1911. Every part has to be carefully adjusted and tuned by hand so they’ll work together. I’ll write more on the M1911 at another time because I want to focus on the AR-15 at the moment. I feel comfortable claiming that the AR-15 is nearly “universal” not just because it is manufacturered by dozens of companies and has accessories from hundreds of companies, but because the assorted parts from different companies usually work together without any problems, and because parts originally designed for the AR-15 are often used by other firearm designs.
One of the most externally-obvious uses of AR-15 parts is the adoption of AR-15 grips and shoulder stocks for other firearms, including pump-action shotguns and the Ruger 10/22. I’ve even seen the AR-15 stock on a modified lever-action (“cowboy style”) rifle. Part of the reason for this popularity is the adjustable shoulder-stock, and part is the widespread availability of aftermarket stocks and grips. This is the self-fulfilling popularity of the AR-15 platform. I’ve tried at least 9 different grips* and so far my favorite has been Grip 23 from Umbrella Corporation.
One of the other popular parts from the AR-15 is the trigger mechanism. Several other gun designs use the AR-15 trigger, the most recent of which is the Sig Sauer MP-x. This guarantees that replacement parts will always be available, and it allows gun owners to upgrade their triggers using things like the Geissele** trigger sets.
And finally, the AR-15 magazines are arguably the single most common part of the system. It is by far the most widely used magazine for semi-automatic firearms that shoot 223 Remington or 5.5mm NATO ammunition. Part of the reason for this is that the 223 Remington and later 5.56 NATO ammunition were designed specifically for the AR-15. It makes sense to use the cheap & plentiful AR-15 magazine When other gun companies design new rifles. So far, I can count at least a dozen modern fireams*** that are not based on the AR-15 but still use the AR-15 magazine. Also, that list doesn’t even include military-only designs like the M249 machinegun.
*AR-15 grips I’ve tried
- Umbrella Grip-23
- military standard A2 grip
- Magpul MOE
- Magpul K
- Ergo Suregrip
- Ergo Suregrip Deluxe (very different)
- Stark Industries
- Mako folding grip (uncomfortable but useful)
- Exile Machine Hammerhead (very umcomfortable but has legal advantages in California)
**Geissele is pronounced “guys-lee”
***AR mag compatible (not including AR-15 rifles & pistols)
- Bolt-Action: Mossberg MVP Patrol
- Conventional: SU-16, Benelli MR1
- Tactical: Sig Sauer 556, FNH SCAR, FNH FNC, MPAR
- Bullpups: FNH FS2000, IWI Tavor, Bushmaster M-17, Steyr Aug (some models)
- Pistols: Kel-Tec PLR-16, Sig Sauer 556 pistol, Extar EXP-556 (based on AR-15), RRA LAR-PDS (based on AR-15) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STANAG_magazine#Non-AR-15.2FM16_type_rifles